Three Ways to Master the Art of Problem Solving

Career Success is More Than Technical Training. You Need Competitive Skills to Get Ahead
Part Three of a Four-Part Series

Jen Seregos | Career Success Coach

“Houston, we have a problem.” We all felt the sting when Tom Hanks gave the bad news to mission control that their spaceship was broken while in space in the movie Apollo 13.

Most likely the problems you face at work don’t involve astronauts’ lives on the line in the middle of orbit, but problems at work are common. So, we better get good at solving them because:

  • Problem solving makes you a better employee and positions you as a top contender when you’re vying for a promotion.
  • Problem-solving skillsets are more desirable to potential employers when you job search.
  • Managers expect you to be a problem solver. If you aren’t squashing problems like a bug, you may end up worrying about keeping your job or advancing.

In our post “The Five Keys to Becoming an Expert Communicator,” we showed you how to become a better communicator to advance your career. Part three will help you master the crucial skill of problem solving. We’ll also show you how to become a better problem solver at work, so you can crush your career goals.

The Problem with Problem Solving

Most people don’t like problems. Generally, the default reactions to problems are to either look for someone or something to blame or to avoid the problem altogether. Neither of these default reactions are helpful when facing problems, especially at work. Imagine what would have happened to Apollo 13 if the team on the ground had pointed blame and avoided the problem and didn’t help their astronauts make it back to earth!

Flip the Script

Most people see problems as negative. It’s even implied in the word itself. When you think of the word “problem,” you probably get an icky feeling, right? But what if you flipped the script? Ray Dalio, a billionaire hedge fund manager, writes about problems in his latest book, Principles. He says that “problems are simply opportunities for improvement.”

So rather than thinking of problems as, well, problems, what if you started thinking about problems as opportunities for improvement? If you start looking at problems as opportunities, you’ll probably get more resourceful, start creating more wins, and you may even reduce stress.

Here’s a simple three-step strategy you can use to become a master problem solver at work so you can shine as the go-to person who puts out fires and is in continuous improvement mode.

  1. Identify the real problem. This step is more important than you might think. Here’s an example. Let’s say a client is unhappy with your company. On the surface, you may think the problem is the unhappy customer. But if you dig a little deeper and connect with the client, you may learn the reason why they are unhappy is because they ordered a part and it came two weeks late, which set them back. You do some research and you learn that a lot of orders are late because of a problem in the labeling process. So a problem disguised as an unhappy customer is actually a problem in your labeling at your warehouse which, in turn, is an opportunity to adjust how your company is handling the labeling process.
  2. Research. Now is the time to research and begin to assess which solutions make the most sense in your situation. For example, take the problem we just discussed in the labeling process at your warehouse. You’ll need to research some possible solutions. Consider doing a Google search for similar problems at other companies. You may even choose to connect with a colleague at another company and ask about their processes to develop a broad spectrum of different solutions.
  3. Take action. After choosing the best solution, you can execute on it, beginning with a solid plan for how to approach the steps involved in making your solution a reality. This is a critical point in the solution process, and it’s important to create an action plan that has realistic next steps and deadlines. One of the biggest “problems” with many solutions is that the execution is not handled with detail and follow-through.

Problem solving is vital in order to advance in your career. Remember to first change the way you look at problems. Rather than seeing them as negative, start thinking of them in terms of opportunities for improvements. Then, use the three-step strategy we outlined to knock it out of the park the next time a problem arises at work. After all, no one remembers what caused the problem that led to Apollo 13 breaking down, but they sure do remember the effort of the people who devised the solution to save those astronauts’ lives!

So far in this series we covered why competitive skills are key to your career success, how to become an expert communicator and how to master the art of problem solving. In our final post in this series, we’ll show you how to take control of your time management. Stay tuned!